Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Admirably bad girl

In The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, Jodie Foster showcases a form of grim feminism that seems necessary given the malicious character of American life

The following post is part of a work-in-progress on Hollywood actors as historians.

Taxi Driver was a paradigmatic movie in Jodie Foster's career in pointing toward the dark tenor of her mature work. But the transformation of her child persona did not happen right away. Foster followed Taxi Driver with Freaky Friday (1976), another of her Disney films, and one that can be said to be her first true star vehicle. The movie, based on the classic 1972 children’s novel of the same name features Foster as young teen who switches identities with her mother (Barbara Harris) after eating an enchanted fortune cookie, each gaining a better appreciation of the other’s life (it was competently remade in 2003 with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in the daughter/mother roles). Foster followed it up with Candleshoe (1977), her final Disney outing, in which she plays a street waif who masquerades as the long lost heir of an old woman (Helen Hayes) who lives in a dilapidated estate managed by her butler (David Niven).   
Foster’s success at imprinting herself on the collective imagination as the tomboy next door is impressive, but also a bit odd. That’s not only because she was simultaneously emerging as a serious actor on the strength of her work in Taxi Driver, but also because she was making films abroad as well. In the Canadian production Echoes of a Summer (1974), which preceded Taxi Driver and shows her growing range, she plays a terminally ill child who befriends a young boy while living at a waterfront house on the Atlantic coast amid parents with divergent styles of coping with the tragedy. In Moi, Fleur Bleue (1977; English title: Stop Calling Me Baby) she plays a teen who accompanies her older sister to Paris, eager for sexual experience. And in the Italian film Il Casotto (“The Beach House,” 1977), she’s a pregnant teen whose parents want her married. These movies are all over the map in tone and content, though alike in their relative mediocrity. Actually, Foster would be afflicted with generally inferior material from the late seventies to the late eighties. Despite this, one can begin to see a characteristic pattern emerge in the film roles she landed, most of which still reflect her mother’s sensibility. And that sensibility is one of girls finding and showing strength in the face of terrible (usually male) behavior.
The most vivid early document in this regard is a Canadian-French production, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977). Little Girl is a strange hybrid of a movie, combing elements of the horror and thriller genres while somehow leading you to suspend your judgment about a protagonist who probably really should be viewed as a monster and yet somehow comes off as a heroine. Set in a remote Maine town, Foster plays Rynn, a remarkably self-sufficient early adolescent who presumably lives with her father. Yet he’s not in the rental house where she lives when the landlady’s daughter (a menacing young pedophile played by Martin Sheen) stops by on Halloween and aggressively makes his sexual interest clear. That’s bad enough, but in ensuing days the landlady herself proves to be far too nosy about her family arrangements, demanding to see Rynn’s father. She also seeks to go into the basement of the house for some jelly glasses, something Rynn refuses to let her do. When the landlady insists, and goes down anyway, her shock at what she finds – something we don’t see – leads to an accident that causes her death.
Over the course of the story, Rynn befriends a friendly police officer, and begins a romance with the officer’s nephew. As that relationship takes root, we learn that Rynn’s father was a loving man but terminally ill. Her mother, by contrast, was dangerously abusive, and after the couple’s divorce he gained custody of their daughter. Upon his death, he left instructions for Rynn to give her mother potassium cynanide in a cup of tea if she ever came looking for her, something Rynn successfully does. The landlady came across the body in the basement, which had led to her own death. Rynn and her boyfriend would have been able to maintain these secrets – they bury the bodies outside the house – but the landlady’s son continues to stalk Rynn, and his subsequent discoveries culminate in sexual blackmail. So Rynn poisons him, too.
There’s something coolly bloodless about Little Girl – the credits roll as Sheen’s character quietly chokes off-screen – in the way it leads us to admire its protagonist. Foster’s character shows a functional independence striking for a child her age, and her actions (or in the case of reporting the landlady’s death, inaction) reflect not only her pragmatism, but behavior that seems justified in light of the malice her antagonists exhibit toward her. (We enjoy watching her poker face as she outwits Sheen, anticipating that he would insist drinking her tea, which is the cup she’s poisoned.) What’s also important here is that legal authorities, like that police officer, are unable to help even when they show good will. In an important sense, Little Girl is a feminist movie, in that it shows an empowered female acting effectively in her own interest. But it’s a grim form of feminism, one driven not by a sense of hope about what women may yet accomplish than a belief that survival is a matter of fighting back against a hostile world by any means necessary.
The last two movies of Foster’s childhood (which is to say the last two she made before going to college) are not quite so bleak, but nevertheless portray worlds in which dangerous men and random violence are pervasive facts of life. In Carny (1980), she plays a runaway waitress who gets a job at a carnival and becomes involved in a romantic triangle between Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson, the legendary leader of the classic rock group The Band, and a producer of the movie. Though the film has a contemporary setting, its core scenario is redolent of carnival road shows dating back to the nineteenth century, particularly in its depiction of the friction, if not hostility, that often characterized the relationship between performers and the locals in the towns where they performed. The tensions between the two friends and in the communities they visit pales, however, before the threat posed by the gangsters who seek to extort money from the troupe at one stop in its tour of the south. Busey and Robertson’s characters ultimately foil this effort, but before Foster’s character endures a brutal near-rape that stopped only by the rapist having his throat slit. It’s truly remarkable how much violence Foster characters experienced in her child acting career, and while all of it was clearly “pretend,” it’s hard to believe that at some level it did not seep into her psyche somehow.
Foster’s other movie of 1980, Foxes, is not as dark, and indeed it has a slick contemporary feel to it, as it was the first film directed by Adrian Lyne, who would go on to have a highly successful commercial career later in the decade. In this movie she was again portrays a precious teen, something of a chic mother hen among a group of high school friends, and in her way perhaps more mature than her own mother, played by Sally Kellerman, who is trying to navigate the new social mores of the late seventies in the aftermath of her divorce. There’s plenty of sex and drugs in Foxes, whose themes anticipated the more successful (and durable) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). But the climax of the movie is a violent tragedy that befalls Foster’s best friend and which leaves her bereft at the end of the story.
 Next: Foster's acting career in college.